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Supporters moving ahead with pot initiative

Posted: September 9, 2013 - 11:05pm

ANCHORAGE — Supporters of a proposed ballot initiative to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Alaska said they are about halfway toward their signature-gathering goal.

The goal is to gather 45,000 signatures of registered voters by Dec. 1, roughly 15,000 more than needed for the proposal to qualify for the August 2014 ballot, the measure’s main sponsor, Timothy Hinterberger, told the Anchorage Daily News in a story Saturday.

To be eligible for next year’s ballot, organizers must gather the necessary signatures before the start of the next legislative session in January.

The proposal would make it legal for people 21 and older to use and possess up to an ounce of marijuana, though not in public. It also would set out provisions for legal grow operations and establish an excise tax.

Meanwhile, the Marijuana Policy Project, which bills itself as the nation’s largest pot policy organization, announced Monday that it would support efforts to end marijuana prohibition in 10 more states by 2017, including Alaska.

Colorado and Washington have passed initiatives similar to what is being proposed in Alaska. The U.S. Justice Department recently released guidance to U.S. attorneys saying federal law enforcement officials should focus on big priorities, not simple possession or legal grow and sale operations, even though Congress has deemed marijuana to be a dangerous drug and that illegal sale and distribution is a serious crime.

Alaska U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said due to limited resources her office already focuses on big trafficking cases and ignores small possession crimes unless related to another violation such as a felon in possession of a firearm.

Alaska was one of the first states to legalize use of medicinal marijuana. Prior ballot efforts to legalize recreational use of pot have failed, though they were different than what is currently being proposed.

In 1972, voters passed an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing a right to privacy. Months later, Homer resident Irwin Ravin arranged to get busted with two joints in his pocket.

In 1975, the Alaska Supreme Court dismissed his case, ruling the state law banning pot possession violated the constitutional right to privacy, at least for small amounts in a person’s home.

The Legislature later set the legal limit for possession at 4 ounces or four plants, making anything more a misdemeanor. However, in 2006, lawmaker voted to criminalize any marijuana possession and restored penalties.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued, saying that conflicted with the 1975 ruling. The Alaska Supreme Court declined to weigh in, deciding any challenge to the law must await an actual prosecution.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell said he likely would not comment on the latest proposal. Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, and a former prosecutor weighing a 2014 gubernatorial run, said he was leaning against the initiative.

Bill Walker, a Republican running as an independent for governor, said he opposed the measure.

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